Posts Tagged ‘Short stories’

Coins

February 24, 2012

Coins sat in the bar by the seat where he always sat. Not in it, but by it. Staring into the surf of his drink. Two twenty-something girls had occupied his usual corner. A blonde and a brunette. Dressed in primary colours. They were out of place in that bar and knew it. They felt awkward. As though everyone was staring at them. Everyone was. They spoke to each other in whispers and muffled giggles, looking back and forth to their touchscreens for distraction. Despite their obvious self-consciousness, there was a kind of excitement to their discomfort. All the Irish pubs they’d been in so far had been full of lively, confident men and women from around the globe. Well-dressed and comfortably hip adultescents that were closer to the present moment than any generation that had gone before. The iGeneration. This pub was not one of those places. This place was new. At least to them it was. This place was news.

“What can I do for you?” asks Philip, the barman.
“Could we have two whiskeys and one bottle of coke?”
“Sure. Ice?”
“A little.”

They had come looking for adventure and memories. They had found both. All the things that had happened, good or bad, could later be recounted as proof of having lived. Their hostel had been overbooked, and they’d had to share a room with two Japanese girls, who were equal parts fun and caution. They had kissed the Blarney Stone and lost bracelets in the process. Temporarily, at least. They had stepped up and down the Giant’s Causeway and had edged across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. They had seen more of Ireland than most Irish people had, or would in their lives. In less than a week. Now they were on a new mission: to get lost.

“Here you are. Enjoy,” says Philip, placing the drinks before them.

The Settle Inn was a typical small town pub. Its seats were covered in green upholstery, and the stools were maroon, or at least people remembered them being that way. The lights were low, and were nestled in tulip-shaped lampshades, coloured a light brown by years of the bulbs’ heat. Philip, barman and owner of the inn, longed for new clientele. He generally had a positive outlook on life, but of late had begun to succumb to despair. A kind of restlessness was growing in him. The bar. This bar he owned. That was the source of it.  It was this place that he blamed these seeds of sadness on. Nothing he had done since taking over The Settle Inn seemed to have had any effect. The place had a mind if its own, and no redecoration could lift the heaviness that clung to it. His favourite part of each day was the morning, alone, preparing for what lay ahead. He would unload the dishwasher, checking each glass as he went, all the while looking around at the empty room imagining what it could be like. He imagined a small stage near the doorway, where singers could sing, or poets could recite. He’d have it by the front window, so passers-by would see them and drop in to have a look at what was going on.  But his plans never came off. His quiz nights bombed. The older folk complained that the questions were too hard, while the younger ones just cheated with their phones. He stopped having them after the fourth one. None had been profitable. He’d brought in a digital jukebox to liven up the place. He’d filled it with classic jazz and blues albums, indie rock compilations, Hits of the Eighties, and a whole hell of a lot of Motown, but all that anyone ever played was The Pogues.

“Where are you girls from?” he asks.
“Australia,” says the brunette.
“Ah, very nice. What part?”
“Sydney,” says the blonde.

Though the locals held the out-of-towners in disdain, everybody warmed to the tourists. Some summer nights, the local to tourist ratio was an even split. Mid-July to late August there was a buzz about the town. These were the best nights of the year. His weary regulars would rise to life, as though awoken from a great slumber. They smiled. They winked. They advised. They warned. “Throw that guidebook away, will you. It’s nonsense,” they said, regardless of the fact that they’d never read a page of one of them. The locals rose to the tourist challenge, ticking all the boxes required for stereotypical Irish folk. Hearts became deeper. As did pockets. Glasses and voices were raised to the roof. They told tall tales, broke out in ballads, and the Irishness of their English grew stronger with every syllable and every sup.

Today was not one of those days. This was winter. The end of November. The little light that came in only served to highlight the dust floating in the air. Coins sat at the bar with his head so close to his pint you could swear they were talking to each other. Jim McCudden sat reading the form in the snug in the corner. Patrick Owens and Michael Comiskey were playing draughts by the fire. The only voice to be heard was that of the TV newscaster announcing more cuts, and the occasional ‘Shower of bastards’ response from one customer or another.

“Shydney, eh?” says Coins, lifting his head from his pint and turning towards them, while at the same time looking past them. As though really talking to someone else, someone who wasn’t there.
“Wazh there Chrizhtmas,” he says and pauses, his sentence hanging on the verge of being a question, cryptic and dreamlike, until he adds, “nineteen shixty-sheven.,” and pulls himself upright into his proper storytelling posture.
“Chrizhtmas. Hotashell…  May.” He pauses again, squinting. “Or maybe Lily?”

He began his story in the middle, which is the same place he began a lot of his sentences, and some of his words. The girls listened and nodded along, as though they understood. They couldn’t. Coins’ speech was slurred when sober, incoherent when tipsy, and incomprehensible when drunk. He had been a seaman. He’d seen every port, and had a story for each one. At least he used to. Or thought he used to. It was not just his speech that had slurred, but his mind too. Places had muddled into each other over the years. Of all the cities he had seen, events he had witnessed, women who had quickened his heartbeat, and mischief he had got mixed up in; only a few fragments remained. Misremembered girls walking renamed streets of cities in which they had never been, where whatever words they had once whispered in his ear had long since faded into sweet nothings.

“Fire… she is… broke… rise up… over all over… lasht thing I saw…”

Philip translated as best he could. Having gotten used to Coins’ slurred speech over the years, he was able to decipher most words. Though the narrative still escaped hm. Not that he cared. Philip had a love/hate affair with his clientele. Summer threw up a few joyous weekends every year, but for every one of those glass-raising, spirit-lifting, heart-warming evenings, there were a hundred down-in-the-dumps, dog-tired days. He was tired of talking about the weather. He was tired of the horse races he had to show on the telly. He was even tired of Fairytale of New York. But most of all, he was tired of his regulars. The auld fellas who clogged up his bar with their mumblings and their grumblings. They seemed to soak up the daylight. No matter how sunny the day outside, or how strong the light streaming through the window, these guys always made it seem dull and rainy. He dreamed of barring them all. Let them find another bar to depress. Why did they insist on bringing their doom and gloom into his bar? He knew his regulars put off potential customers. Potentially interesting customers. The locals weren’t fond of out-of-towners. At least once a day, a couple of fresh faces would step inside the door and glance around. Philip tried to usher them in with words of welcome, but it rarely paid off. The regulars would turn, look, snort, look again, and turn back around; and the potential customers after a quick consultation with each other, would make a dignified retreat.

Philip was aware that it was the cold stares the barflies give that drove them away. The stares and the silence. A bar with ten people in it, and not a word being spoken. But, what could he do? He’d love to kick the regulars out, but at the same time they were his livelihood. Every spare penny they have ends up in his pocket. He’d go under without them. Plus, they’d never done much to warrant being barred. Besides getting drunk, incidents in The Stumble Inn were rare and easily resolved, and he could hardly criticize them for getting drunk.

“Deep clear blue. Falling. Falling,” continues Coins. His eyes are glassy and red. The girls have gone back to their touchscreens, communicating more with the hemisphere they’re from than the one they are in. Coins has lost his audience, but he goes on nonetheless. Philip slices lemons. Less listening than observing. He has heard them all anyway. And made sense of none.

“One two kangaroo. One two kangaroo,” blurts Coins, as a wet laugh breaks out on his face, down through his nose and out the side of his mouth.

Coins’ gift of the gab had long since waned from what it was. It wasn’t just that his words were incoherent. Behind the words themselves, the story itself had been eroded. Where once he would embellish his tales with fanciful untruths and colourful exaggerations, now he merely tried to tell the dull truth, and rarely got even that. A combination of senility and self-regulation had whittled away the rich tapestries of bullshit that he once wove.  What might have been seen as bawdy and bold in a man of younger years was considered lewd and lecherous in someone of his age. His cheeky charm had crept towards a vile vulgarity. His pausing, which used to be for effect, was now solely for the purpose of recollecting his train-wreck of thought. His catalogue of memories, which used to come to mind so vividly, eluded him in his ageing. The details grew cloudy and distant: names of places, and of faces; causes and effects; the reason and the rhyme; the season and the time. These things hid in the dusty cobwebs of his memory, and he could not go on till everything had become clear. And it rarely did. Neither the truth nor the lies coming to mind. Nothing but the grey between the two.

“Six feet six teeth I says,” he says, as the bar telephone rings.
“I’d love to stay and translate,” Philip says quietly to the girls, “but I don’t want to ruin the ending.” They laugh politely.
“In all the other bars on this street, there’s two more like him, and at least one worse,” he adds, picking up the receiver.

The girls returned to composing posts on their phones, so friends and family back in Sydney knew exactly where they were and what they were doing. They had wanted to find the real Ireland, the one off the tourist trail. As did everyone else. And they had duly found it and subsequently ignored it. They tried to capture it in texts, tweets, photos, and video; so that in the future they will be able to look back on the time that they had almost been here. They were here and yet not here. These present moments would become their future pasts. And unfortunately, they knew this.

Philip hung up the phone, and started wiping down the bar.

“Where else are you girls planning to get to?” he asks.
“Not sure. Any suggestions?” asks the blonde.
“Anywhere but here,” he says jokingly, but in his heart he meant it.

He was dreaming of the bar he could have had. In a city far away, where the Irish were the tourists, and the locals were vibrant and loud. Where stories were never told twice. Where people spoke in truths, and not just in gossip, rumours, and hearsay. Where folk danced on matted verandas out the front no matter how old they were. Where there was no jukebox because the customers themselves were made of music.

“Pull uz another, Phil,” says Coins, pushing his glass away from him.

Coins, too, was lost to another world. To faraway times rather than faraway places. He thought not of what he lived through or of what he had seen, but of the times when he was still able to remember what he had lived through and could reconstruct in words what of the world he had seen. Times when he could hold court with just the tone of his voice. When he could build suspense, cloak an audience in intrigue and mystery with the will of his tongue, or deliver a punchline to an enraptured bar. No one could hold a candle to him when it came to tales of adventure or of misadventure. But his wit and wisdom was not what it once was. No sooner would he begin his tale than it would start to unravel. He had told them so many times he was no longer sure of which parts he had made up, or of which he had left out. He had sifted fiction from fact and back again so often that he could no longer tell the difference.

“There you go.” Philip placed the pint down on the beermat in front of him, picking up the change that Coins had counted out.

At the far end of the bar Jim McCudden rose from his seat in the snug and wandered across the room to the jukebox in the opposite corner. He put his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a pile of coins. He picked through them in his palm, dropped a couple in the slot, and returned to his seat. And soon after, once again, it was Christmas Eve, babe; in the drunk tank.

Hands

December 10, 2010

I have often wondered why we have friends. What they are for. I have very rarely had a conversation on any topic with one of my close friends which was as pleasant or as enjoyable as one I have had with a total stranger. In all honesty, when it comes to a discussion on almost any subject matter, the only difference between having it with a friend than with a stranger is that the appropriate rules of manners, respect, and tolerance are no longer required. And this can hardly be construed as a benefit.  Not to mention the fact that you have most probably heard and can already predict what your friend is going to say in most instances. And this only increases your own impatience, leading you to your own infuriation, which is exactly how your partner in conversation had known you would react. So all your conversations merely repeat themselves endlessly with only the levels of infuriation ever really varying. Going upwards obviously.

I had a conversation with a guy on a train not two weeks ago. Adam was his name. For three hours we talked. On a broad range of subjects. We exchanged political, cultural, and religious opinions; applauded the service on the train; philosophised about sports and the modern game; gave inaccurate portrayals of our personal lives, in which we had never been at fault; waxed lyrical about passions for which we had really only a passing fancy; passed off things we had just read earlier that day as our own long-standing positions; and god only knows what else we talked about in between. All in all, it was a most delightful conversation. Regardless of what topic we stumbled upon to. Nothing he said aggravated me no matter how much I disagreed with him or saw through him, as he was gentlemanly enough to choose to pretend to not see through me either. And I told him as he rose to depart at Midleton that I had ‘thoroughly enjoyed our conversation today’, which I had. And he concurred wholeheartedly. We shook hands firmly and he stepped off the train onto the platform. ‘What a fine man that was!’ I thought to myself. ‘Hopefully I will never run into him again.’

But friends are friends, and for reasons so far never satisfactorily explained to me; we are not permitted to dump them like you can a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Nor are you even able to ignore them like a stranger in the street. Somehow you end up being responsible for them. Despite sharing neither blood nor any other internal fluids with them. This seems to me like quite an unfair arrangement. They say you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I remain unconvinced.

There were five of us in our poker group: myself, Ciaràn, Ricardo, Pavel, and Colm. Long-time friends. All guys. All met in college. Our poker meetings were always of a lighted-hearted fashion. Joking and jesting. Jibing and besting. The usual small-talk and gentlemanly gossip was also par for the course. We were a jovial bunch of lads by nature. At least most of the time. Especially at the beginning of the game. Though less so at the end. We tended to descend away from our naturally peaceable characters towards much more suspicious and resentful individuals as the game went on. If our games could be charted on a line graph, according to the categories of joviality and competitiveness, the graph would look like a perfect X. Joviality going downwards obviously.

I don’t remember when we first started having our poker evenings. I only really remember when I started winning real money. Before that, poker was the secondary activity. It was always ‘meeting up and (also) playing poker’. In that order of importance. The cards used not be a priority. Like scratching your balls, and watching TV.  But at some hard-to-define point the roles most definitely got reversed. The meeting/poker thing that is. As opposed to the balls thing, which as we are all well aware, could never be bettered.

Our early poker games were just for small change. No notes. Just whatever coins you could cobble together. Even still, there were continual, heated arguments about the rules when we played. It seemed it was never quite certain which version we were playing. Pavel’s aunt seemed to have brought him up playing some kind of communist version of poker whereby everyone’s bet had equal value regardless of how much money you put in. It was to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor he said. Ricardo was defiant that in Brazil certain cards were actually certain other cards at certain times known only to him. We never understood this ourselves. Ciaràn tended to deal the cards at least twice. He would miscount his deal more often than not, and insist the whole hand be re-dealt. Unless he had good cards. In which case, he would forget his “rule”, and agree to let it slide this time so as not to cause further “unnecessary inconvenience” to anyone. And Colm didn’t know any of the rules. And I’m still not sure he fully does.

Finally, the bickering and constant disputes got too much for someone – Colm, I think! – and he decided to get a copy of the official poker rules so as to put an end to our ceaseless arguing. It was a very wise decision. As we pored over the rulebook, we saw that we had all been all right all along all the time. We were all able to immediately recall situations where we had been arguing one of the points that we now had proof was part of official play. Or we remembered times when we had been so insistent that a particular aspect of play was true, and were now able to locate certain variants on the game where what we had been saying was in fact, acceptable. We each found justifications for each and every of our previous claims throughout the rulebook, and everyone was kind enough to agree to remember that things that had never happened had happened, and that things that hadn’t happened had; which was really very nice of all of us: to show our support in wilfully misremembering each other’s past actions, converting them into more righteous and justifiable acts. And this, as I have already suggested, is really what I suspect friends are for.

Nonetheless, we did at least learn the rules and stick by them. It brought about a monumental reduction in disagreements, and made our evenings a great deal pleasanter. We also bought playing chips. And a green felt for the table. We set limits on how much we would play with. Initially, it was €5 each. So the total pot was €25. Our poker evenings continued merrily in this way for quite a while, and only red wine spilled on clothes or the occasional poker or girl related fist-fight ever dampened our spirits. All things considered, we had an extremely contented year or so of poker. Sometimes we never even finished the game, and just ended up chewing the proverbial cud into the wee hours, with the overall pot left unclaimed, and not a one of us ever even thought so much as to steal it. Or in the event that the over-consumption of alcohol discontinued someone’s ability to play, never in our lives would we have dreamed of taking advantage of that passed-out opponent’s remaining money. For we were friends, and that’s what mattered. It was a nice year. Occasionally quarrelsome. But on the whole, it was very, very nice.

Over time though, the whole meeting-up aspect of cards was demoted to mere necessity. Things gradually grew more serious. And when this honeymoon period had begun to grow tiresome, the stakes were doubled to make things “more interesting”, which it did. Though it only stayed at that new level for 3 or 4 games. One evening, after we had finished, Pavel suggested raising the stakes even higher, so that the maximum total pot was €100. I wholeheartedly seconded this idea. Pavel had just lost out on the final hand when we went all-in; so while the other guys felt like they had lost a tenner, Pavel felt like he had lost the whole €50 and clearly felt the urge to recoup his losses at our following game. I also thought that raising the stakes was a great idea at the time, as I had just won that particular pot, and had suddenly become annoyed that I had only won €50, when I could have won twice as much if we had only raised the stakes a week earlier.

Ciaràn and Ricardo were less enthusiastic, and were both relieved that they had only lost €10. Colm, who was drunk and comatose by the end of the game, had nothing pertinent to say on the matter. In fact, he was drunk by the beginning of the game too. Kept shouting ‘yes’ or ‘crap’ when he looked at his cards. And lost all his money quite early in the game when he temporarily confused his interior monologue and out-loud voice; was quite clearly heard saying that he was about to “bluff” the next hand; and went all-in on a pair of hearts. What conversation he thought he had been making to us during this hand remains unknown, except possibly to Colm’s own cerebral dump. But probably not.

So the vote was split. Pavel and I were in favour. Ciaràn and Ricardo: against. Colm: asleep. Pavel was first to try to rouse him and force him to cast his vote. And wishing to resolve the matter promptly, simply tried to extract an immediate response from him.  ‘HeyColmDyathinkweshudraisethepotuptoahundredquidfornxtweek?Yeah?Whadoyoureckon?Weshould?Yeah?’ Colm looked up at him, and after presumably thinking it over very briefly so as to consider both arguments, emitted a low, but most definitely audible ‘yeah’, and then returned his eyes to their previously closed position.

‘Well, that’s that decided’, we said, and turned to pick up our coats to leave. But the boys weren’t having any of this. Ricardo accused us of manipulating our dear friend, and asking “leading questions” – whatever that means, some weird Portuguese mistranslation no doubt – which clearly wasn’t the case, and greatly offended both of our natures. We had merely wished for the decision to be made as quickly as was possible we explained. Colm had work in the morning and we thought it best not to disturb him more than necessary, as he would need to be fully alert for the day which lay ahead of him. But, they claimed we were being “blatantly and knowingly deceitful”, and insisted on re-clarifying Colm’s “actual answer”. So now it was their turn to wake Colm up and again extract his opinion.

Ciaràn shook him violently at first, and then held him very steadily by the shoulders, and keeping direct contact with Colm’s bleary, glassy, newly-reddened eyes asked him, “Do you? Colm! Look at me. Do you think? Colm, COLM! Stay with me. Do you think we should raise the pot? The pot? Colm. No, I don’t have any pot. No. No, I don’t. I don’t want any pot. The pot, for chrissakes. The amount of money we bet. Get it? The pot. Do you think we should raise the pot to 100 euro? COLM, COLM!!! Come back to me. Do you think we should raise the pot to 100 euro for next week’s game? What do you think? Huh? What do you think? Do you want the pot to be raised?’ There was a pause. His mouth opened to speak, but got closed up again before he could speak by a bit of an unexpected burp, which also contained a bit of unexpected vomit, which slipped out over his teeth and down onto his chin. He recomposed himself somewhat, and took stock of his environment. He looked about himself, admittedly in a slightly dazed fashion, not unlike an interrogatee after a 4 day, no-camera, no-lawyer, post-Patriot Act, physical questioning. And then he answered in his usual Irish drool/accent. ‘Whatever’, he said. And his face collapsed back down onto the table creating a loud face-meets-table type sound.

‘There,’ said Pavel and I. ‘So it’s settled.’

‘No, it’s not settled!’ Ricardo railed with put-on outrage. ‘He said, “whatever”, which means he doesn’t care. It means he has no opinion!’

‘Don’t be silly,’ I countered. ‘It means we can raise the pot because he doesn’t mind.’

’It means he doesn’t mind if we do raise it, but equally he doesn’t mind if we don’t,’ argued Ciaràn.

This debate went back and forth for a short period. Meanwhile, Colm had slipped off the table and was lying on the floor with a bloody nose. We think this was from when his face fell onto the table, but it may have been from when his body fell onto the tiles. He was clearly in even less of a position to convey his thoughts on the issue than he had been the previous two times, and we realised it was best to settle the issue by some other means.

So we decided to toss a coin. The atmosphere of the room was again tense with competitiveness. I threw the coin up in the air. Pavel said ‘heads’. Ricardo said ‘tails’. And Ciaràn said ‘heads’. And it was tails.
‘Yes!’ exclaimed Ricardo. ‘We’re not raising the stakes.’
‘But Ciaran lost the coin-toss,’ I retorted.
‘Yeah, but I didn’t,’ said Ricardo.

‘But you can’t both play! You can’t both call opposite sides of the coin and still be on the same side of the argument!’

As anyone in our predicament would, neither Pavel nor I were willing to accept that they had won fairly, and insisted on a re-toss. So we agreed to throw it up again. This time, we made it clear who was going to call sides. Ricardo would toss. I would oversee his execution of it. Pavel and Ciaran would call sides. Ricardo picked a coin out of his pocket, tossed it in the air, caught it in his right hand and slapped it on the back of his left. Pavel called tails. Ciaran called heads. Ricardo lifted his hand to reveal the coin.

‘It’s heads,’ he declared. ‘We win. You can’t disagree this time.’
We looked at his hand.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘It’s a real,’ he said.
‘A what?’
‘A Brazilian ‘real’. It’s our currency.’
‘How do you know which side is heads?’ we asked simultaneously. Even Ciaràn who was supposed to be on Ricardo’s side seemed uncertain.
‘I’m telling you. This side is heads.’ He assured us.
I remained unconvinced. We picked it up and studied it closely.

One side had the coin’s value, but it also had the year it was minted. The other had a design, the word ‘Brasil’, but no number saying how much it was worth. This was all very new to us. For a while, we became quite interested in this coin, the relative value in the currency compared to the euro, and current average wages in Brazil. We became distracted from our task. We learned of the huge collapse in the value of the ‘real’ in 2002, before our conversation led into a lengthy discussion on the scruples (or lack of them) of the proponents of free market capitalism, the global repercussions of its cavalier practices, and the lack of accountability or transparency currently required in the world of modern globalisation. Also, Pavel had a highly amusing story, which we had never heard him tell before, of a coin that was in his family that had taken a bullet which would have hit his great-grandfather’s scrotum, but had hit the coin instead, and thereby prevented the discontinuation of his lineage. A coin, without which, Pavel himself wouldn’t be here today. And we all enthusiastically chose to believe as fact the story that Pavel had chosen to enthusiastically believe as fact. In short, we momentarily forgot our differences and were once more returned to our good and companionable selves.

Until we heard what could only have been the sound of escaping wee coming from the unconscious sleeping, bleeding, dearest friend of ours lying on the tiles. And turning to look down at him, we saw his blue jeans, turn from a light azure, through turquoise, and on to something near indigo. This transformation beginning around the crotch, but via the miracle of capillary action managed to creep itself all the way down to his socks, into his shoes, and out onto the floor. We watched this happen with detached concern or concerned detachment. I’m not sure which would be a more accurate description. Fortunately it was his house. In truth, we always played at his house for precisely this reason. And in these types of situation, it was unanimously agreed upon that our leaving, would save both his potential embarrassment and our potential guilt.

So we went back to the original euro. We tossed it one more time, with much less tension in the air than had previously been there, and left; with Colm asleep on the floor covered in parts of himself which were supposed to be on the inside of him, but weren’t. We had won the coin-toss. We were raising the stakes to €100.

But it didn’t stop there. It was €100 for a few more games. And then it became €25 each to play for a pot of €125. We began taking it even more seriously. Getting to known the finer points of play. Studying each other’s habits. Learning tactics and gauging probabilities. Becoming fuller, better players. More professional. More ruthless. More like men.

And each time someone won, or nearly won, or just lost, or nearly lost, or won twice in a row, or nearly won twice in a row, or if someone failed to win on many consecutive occasions, or almost any permutation thereof: someone would suggest we raise the stakes. We would be divided in our opinions. Forming alliances. Vying for Colm’s vote – he never seemed to have an opinion. We’d argue. Sometimes, we’d agree to higher stakes. Sometimes, we’d keep them the same. But eventually, the stakes would be changed. Always upwards, obviously.

And before we knew it, quicker than it seemed possible, it was €200 in: €1,000 for the winner. We arrived at Colm’s house for the first game at these stakes. We were unusually punctual. Furthermore, Colm was unusually sober – one can only assume that the changing nature of our evenings had finally dawned on him. We retained the small-talk, but only as a matter of course. Our verbal tos and fros were running on automatic. We were content to merely pay lip service to the pre-poker ritual that we had cultivated in the previous two years. We dispensed with the pleasantries after a reasonably appropriate time had passed, so that nobody could have any grounds for complaining that we no longer cared for one another; and then we got down to business.

The first few hands were of little note; each man showing restraint in the early stages. There were even some remnants of non-game-related conversation, which I personally frowned upon, but was more than willing to tolerate. Drinks were few. Even Colm managed to restrain himself to a controllable tipsiness. And like this, the night edged onwards. By midnight we were all still in the game, and there was barely even a discernable leader as we had all won our share of good hands. Less than an hour after this, things had changed significantly.

Ciaràn was first out. His funds had begun to dwindle and he had had to take a gamble on a high straight, but lost out to a flush from me. He’d been particularly unlucky. He’d had a run of nothing hands, and had been caught out on a couple of pretty convincing bluffs. What really compounded his bad luck was the fact that, by looking through a glass of water which Ricardo had carelessly misplaced, I could; via the refraction of light; see his cards whenever he glanced at them. Though he briefly cursed his ill-fortune in an un-re-printable manner after losing, he was otherwise, nothing but gracious in defeat. He had played well, and there was nothing for him to be ashamed of.

Colm went out after him. In his (relative) sobriety, it seemed Colm was too cautious a player to ever have had a real chance. His erratic drunken tactics – or lack of them – had meant that he had won on many previous occasions, as his manner of play was highly illogical, and therefore completely unpredictable. It was very hard to read the thoughts of such an impulsive drunkard; especially the thoughts of someone we weren’t sure really understood the rules of play. His pile of chips slowly diminished, and he never took enough of a risk to get himself back into the game. His game ended with a whimper, though he himself appeared a tad relieved that he was now able to relinquish his restraint and finally relax. “Well, I had a good run of it there for a while,” he said, as he grabbed the (still hall-full!) whiskey bottle and took a great big gulp straight from the neck.

Pavel was next to go. I think none of us ever enjoyed when Pavel won. His post-victory smugness was an offense to the game itself. Pavel only ever won through sheer chance; unlike the commendable victories which Ricardo and I could command. He never succeeded through skill or guile like we did, but only through a continual run of beginner’s luck. Though, not this time. This time, his luck conspired against him. His inability to conceal his confidence in his cards meant that he won too little when his hands were good, and lost too much when his hands were bad. To add to his woes, the remaining players seemed unwilling to gamble against each other, appearing to take it in turns in trying to run him out of the game. And now he was out. Pavel had given it his all, and ought to have been proud of his performance; instead of being quite as vocally resentful as he was. He proceeded to express his dissatisfaction in a foul-mouthed and wholly unwarranted tirade, primarily at Ricardo and me, both of whom stoically bore the brunt of his vitriol, as we should have, as he is our friend, and we both understood that ‘these things happen’. His outburst gradually gave way to its very opposition: a stone-cold silence, which we deemed much more appropriate. We then resumed our game.

So it was down to two. Ricardo and I. Our stacks were pretty much even. He had neither as much as I, nor had I as little as him. Ciaràn dealt. A few tentative hands passed with no demonstrable advantage being gained. Until, on the fourth hand, the flop showed up a jack of hearts, a queen of hearts, and an ace of clubs. I had a jack of clubs and a queen of diamonds. Two pair. I looked at Ricardo. His face was devoid of emotion. As it always was. I had always found his calm demeanour most irritating, but never quite to the same extent as I disliked it just then. There was something recognisably inhumane about his expressionlessness or his calm. At that moment, I could not comprehend the existence of such a person. Had he no compassion for his fellow man? Did he not know how much this game meant? Not the money. Well, not just the money. But, the pride! The victory! The vindication! Why was this man trying so blatantly to come between me and what was rightly mine? I had toiled so hard to get myself into this position, and now I was sat face to face with this implacable automaton, devoid of both empathy and pity. Thus, I resolved, that for the sake of all that was good in the world; all that was just and right and fair; for all the underdogs of the world who’d never had a chance, who’d been trodden on by the cruelty and inhumanity of society; that I would beat this man! For them; but mainly for me; I would win!

The “turn” was another queen. This time: of diamonds. I had a full house.  I looked at Ricardo. He was contorting his mouth as he weighed up his options. I knew I had him. He looked over at me in thought. Then in one slow movement, with both hands, he pushed all his chips into the middle of the table. He stared back at me blankly. ‘All-in’ he said. My heart stopped. Then it raced. The blood coursed through me. I glanced again at my cards. Just to be sure. And somehow I managed to make the words ‘All-in’ come out of my mouth too. I added my chips to his and sat back to await the final card.

I looked about me. Only Colm seemed in any way interested in the result. He sat there, eyes wide, drinking the least “bloody” Bloody Mary I have ever seen. Pavel seemed unmoved and unmoving; his arms folded across his chest, a steely expression of contempt, disgust, and jealousy across his face. Ciaràn looked resolutely bored; his chin resting on his fist resting on the table; until he laboriously lowered his arm and drew it towards the fifth card to turn it over.

Ciaràn delicately turned over the river. It was the ten of hearts. My own heart was in my mouth. The game had to be mine! Didn’t it? It was surely mine. How could he beat me?  Could he beat me? Please tell me it’s mine. Oh god, to whom I have never before turned or ever will call upon after, I beseech thee, let me win! Lord of mercy, for the love of all the suffering of this unholy planet, let me have this game!

Ricardo, as calmly as ever, turned over his cards. As did I, though not quite as calmly. There was the pregnantest of pauses as we discerned whose hand had won. And then it was over.

‘Wo!’ said Colm. ‘They were close hands.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘They were.’
‘You can say that again,’ added Ricardo.

Ricardo and I shook hands, and then we all started gathering up what was ours, moving to put our glasses in the dishwasher, grabbing our coats, and what not.

‘Hey guys, what are youse doing?’ Colm asked in bewilderment. ‘Where are you going?’

‘We’re going home,’ we told him.
‘But it’s only just after one,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t anyone want to stay for a drink? Doesn’t anyone wanna stay and just talk for a while? ’

But none of us did.

Chips

February 2, 2010

Christmas party in January. And not early January, but quite late. Almost February. Still, it’s a party and we’re not complaining. The Mongolian Barbeque works thus: you pick your own ingredients, the chefs cook it on a huge metal plate, and they give it back to you. It’s nice in theory, but I’m a shit cook. I don’t know how to cook. I don’t know what ingredients go well with what. My husband does all the cooking at home. I used not be so bad, but he was always much handier in the kitchen. And so, over time, the more he has cooked, the better he has gotten. And, predictably, the opposite has happened to me. Now, the only thing I can make well is toast. So leaving it to me to decide what goes in my dish is like letting one of the weakest students in the class decide what the answers to the test are. A nice gesture, but ultimately, a really bad idea.

In the queue for our dishes, Kevin whispers in my ear that he has been stuck sitting beside our director. I am aware that she is actually right behind him, and able to hear him too, but it’s hard to convey this knowledge to him discretely. He glances around, and his embarrassing gaff dawns on him. He goes instantly red. So red, I feared it might be permanent.  Irish people blush like no other people. It’s due to the depths of our shame. Our director doesn’t seem to mind though. I see her smiling to herself.

We get our food. We sit. We eat. We talk. We drink. We merry. All is well. I have always had my reservations about Christmas parties. There’s something about them that briefly turns adults back into teenagers. They are a lottery of regret. Who will wake up tomorrow regretting what? Who will struggle to maintain eye contact with which colleagues for how many weeks to come? Who will cringe the most in the aftermath? But at this stage of the evening, all is going swimmingly. I like this part. This is nice.

After our meal, in a clear demonstration of the fact that democracy does not work, we decide to go to Buskers. No one can even remember how it got into the hat, but Buskers has been chosen, and I insist, in the spirit of that very same democracy, that we respect the outcome of our own election process. Buskers is naff and full of posers. On the other hand, it is quite near. That may well be its only plus though; its nearness. Just down to Temple Bar Square, up Fleet Street, and we’re there. We enter. It’s early, and there are no bouncers at the door. Inside it is bright and offensive. Four blokes have taken up post by what will become the dance floor. They eye us as we enter, still a few shots short of courage. At the bar, the staff are bright and bubbly. Never a good sign. I get the first round. Our drinks are served and we move off, the ground flickering green and blue. I have never trusted establishments that light their floors.

After some time, and several rounds, a few of us come to realise that Buskers is not so bad, especially if you sit outside on the street. It’s quite pleasant out the front. A bit cold, but we can bear it. The music is absent and there is more to look at. It’s almost like not being at Buskers at all. In fact, had we just bought some cans and some deckchairs and sat a few metres to the right, we could have saved ourselves €20 or €30 each.

Darkness comes on as our spirits lift. Though I have no love for our employers, who treat us with such disdain, I have only affection for my colleagues who I am in this boat with. These are good folk here, and it has been good to work with them. They are people with spark and wit. Real people, with open hearts and lively minds, and I am glad to have known them.

But, alas, I am too far gone now, and I move to leave. Goodbyes are said. Hugs are given and taken, and I stumble off onto the shiny Dublin streets. I am tired and I am homeward. I take the 19a from Westmoreland St and sit up top. The bus crosses The Liffey to the North-side. The river is high this evening. On O’Connell Street, shoppers and commuters scurry along the paths. Friends and strangers, tourists and blind dates, await each other at The Spire. Already-full bins have further rubbish creatively added to their tops, like blocks removed from a game of Jenga; precariously placed. The next contributor to this collective house of cards may cause the whole tower of junk to collapse, and will therefore be responsible for all of the fallen litter, and not just his or her own entry. Them’s the rules, and everybody knows it.

I realise I am hungry again. I have drunk too much and have started feeling woozy. It is not so much hunger as a settling of the stomach I’m in need of. Something to soak up the booze. I need something bad for me. Something hot and bad for me. I want chips. A big bag of chips. No wait! Curry chips. Even better. That’s what I want. I want a tray of curry chips. I begin to imagine them. Begin to crave them. I grow impatient. Wanting them now. Wanting them immediately. My hunger increases at every traffic light that stops us. I think of where is best to get them. Where’s nicest. And where’s nearest. For the second time today, the nearness of the place wins out. I get off two stops before mine, and go to Macari’s where there is no queue. I consider getting onion rings too, but no; chips are all I’m really after. I order and am quickly served.

I leave with brown paper bag in hand. I had planned on waiting till I got home before eating them, but I am weak, and I cannot resist. Holding the paper bag and the lid underneath the tray, so as not to burn my left hand, I take the plastic fork with my other and dig in. I know it could be seen as uncouth or graceless behaviour, but I don’t care. Not here. Not in this city. I turn into my estate, and on to my road. And then, just a few houses from my own, a very weird thing happens. Between numbers 33 and 35 is a lane which runs between the roads, and a skip has been there for the past week or so. And as I pass this, a man jumps out from behind it and starts shaking himself at me. This naked guy!  Completely starkers. No mac. No towel or bathrobe. Just shoes. A pair of black shoes. And nothing else. I scream. A short, sharp, high-pitched scream. He continues to dance there with his lad in his hand, shaking it at me – it’s not erect or anything; he’s just swinging it around. And I bolt. My curry chips go flying into the air. I just run, possibly screaming, I’m not sure. I go as fast as my high heels will let me. I get to my gate, push through and run up to my door. I do not look back. I grab my purse and desperately search for my keys. I find them, get the right one, push it into the slot, turn it, enter, and slam the door behind me. My heart is racing, and I am in a suddenly sobering kind of shock.

My husband, hearing my panicked entrance, comes rushing out of the front room to me.

“What happened? What’s going on? Are you ok?”

I don’t know how to respond, but, eventually manage to tell him that I have been flashed by some guy out in the estate. His predictable reaction is to want to go out and get the flasher, and beat him up, or bring him to the police, or who knows – I’m not sure how far he had thought his plan through. He steps out the door and looks out at the road. He sees no one. Then he steps back in, and looks at me.

“What did he look like?”

I don’t know what to say. It happened so quickly.

“I don’t know. He looked… naked.”

“I mean, what kind of guy was he? Old? Young? Tall? Short? What colour hair? Anything?”

I stare back at him speechlessly. My shoulders and arms pull up into an intense shrug and I can’t think of anything at all. I guess I am still in shock. My mind is drawing a total blank. I have absolutely no clue how to describe him. I open my mouth, but can’t seem to get any words out. He stands in front of me impatiently, with a look of urgency and exasperation on his face. “What kind of guy was he!!!”, he repeats.

“What did he look like?”

“Sh-sh-shoes”, I manage to stutter. “b-b-black shoes.”

Daylights

November 2, 2009

It’s funny how bright this place seems now, these fields, open and expansive. Even the woods feel light and easy, unburdened by memory, unhindered by regret. I stroll around the edge, stopping every now and then to read the names which have been carved into the barks of trees; wondering if I might recognise any. So far, I haven’t. Some are barely legible; only a vague imprint that something was once written there remaining. The trees also struggling to conceal their scars; each year falling a little further inside themselves.

It has been so long since I have been back here. My brothers – born a year either side of me: Darren, older; Shaun, younger – have long since left. As have I. We chased this place away when we could. It’s funny though; growing up we spent so much time running about these fields and woods that I keep expecting either one of them to jump out at me from where they have been hiding in the long grass, or to drop down before me from a branch above. I keep glancing over my shoulder, in case they’re coming up behind me with water-balloons.

You always had to be on your toes with Shaun. Ever-grinning, he was always up to something, and I was usually its victim – he was scared of pulling pranks on Darren, scared of how he might react. Shaun was an interminable messer. That cheeky smile fixed to his face, he was more prone to fits of giggles than anyone I’ve known. Strange how, when we meet these days, the memory and the man seem so at odds. The years have pulled down his cheeks. He smiles now only with his lips. The jokes no longer funny, his eyes grew dim.

A year and a week older than me, Darren was the rock of us. It almost seemed like he was born to be older than us, as though he had chosen the role. He was always the one with the plan and Shaun and I would follow him regardless. I remember the bridge he built. We found a log deep in the forest, a large trunk, and he pulled it at least a hundred metres along the forest floor, waded the water with it resting on his shoulder, and laid its end on the opposite bank. Shaun and I had given up after an hour; feeling ourselves to be more of a hindrance than a help. But Darren pulled that log all day, without a break, half a metre at a time. Step by painstaking step. And when it was done, he was proud. And he was happy. When he set his mind to something he could not be stopped. No matter how hard it was, or how long it took, he would not give up until he had succeeded. He never complained and he never cried. I remember how, once, while cutting roses for our grandmother, he fell into a mass of briars, and came out covered in thorns looking unrecognisable. He was so cut-up that I cried, and I could not look at him, but he didn’t shed a single tear. He didn’t even seem upset. And I really believed that he could not be hurt.

I continue walking along the track where the field and forest meet. No kids play here today. Maybe they don’t come here any longer. I go on a little further, and then stop; contemplating whether or not to venture into the woods a little. I look in past the trees, and then back out across the field. It is so much brighter here than I had recalled. Even the breeze is light. And as the sun streams down gently, I am stricken with sadness; a sense of grief, knowing I have lost something, but unable to remember what. And I steal off into the past. We catch minnows in the shallow pools; and cautiously inch across them when they freeze each winter. A fox’s den in the undergrowth; we lie in wait, us three, camouflaged, under mounds of leaves. Defending tree-huts from invasion, alliances rising and falling. In the long grass, after school; nervously; my first kiss. Her name escapes my memory, her face too.

It’s strange how far we let ourselves drift. Drifting off, and away, and apart. We were so inseparable then; my brothers and I, keepers of a sacred bond. Now we are grown, and we do not share our fears anymore. We divided them up between us, and each buried a piece.

For there are those other memories too. The ones we hid, and bade ourselves keep. The ones that Shaun could not laugh off; that Darren could not fight. Memories of hiding out here past dusk, refusing to go home; of the things we could not do then, of the things we did not understand. Feeling afraid. And over time, that fear became anger, and I could not put it out. We locked them up in the dark, and made them dull; those memories. We left them in our wake, so that they might fade. And the details slip away towards obscurity, but never fully get there. The colours dampen in the mind. Who wore what when? Who did what to whom? And in what order? These things go. Dialogue is erased, the faces are drawn blank; the light drained.

I look at the land about me, the woods, the sheer brightness of the day, the colours so vibrant in the daylight, and it hardly seems like this could have been the place.

Our memories are elusive. They paint their own past. Or cover it over. We are left with a negative; a small dark clip of the truth, and that is all that we are able or prepared to see. We are afraid to blow it up, afraid of the bigger picture. These things we have seen; they have shaped us. They direct us still. And we will keep them with us always, whether we mean to or not. So, no, we have not forgotten; but then again, nor do we remember.

Streets

May 20, 2009

Thursdays, 5:30. This is where weekends begin for me. I’m lucky. The sun is out. My coat is bunched into my bag. I stroll home avoiding the shadows. I cross Dame Street, go through Temple Bar, up Capel Street, turn left before the sex shops, around The Capel Building, and then along the Luas tracks behind The Four Courts to Church Street, and on towards Stoneybatter; choosing the side-streets or main streets, depending on the colour of the traffic lights as I get to them.

The city is in a great mood. Dublin rarely looks as beautiful as when viewed from Capel Street Bridge on a sunny evening in May. As a nationality we tend to panic in good weather. Our awareness of its fleetingness triggers some hereditary response; solar warmth is as rare to us as solar eclipses are to most of the rest of the world. We know that it will not last. Driven by something beyond logic, we know we must make the most of this momentary reprieve. So, all previous arrangements are scrapped or adjusted, and we launch ourselves into the light, and put aside all our better judgment, to revel in the rays of summer.

I am not a great lover of the sun, but nonetheless, I enjoy the walk home, filling melodies with random rhymes. I turn right before the Smithfield Luas stop, left before the Whiskey Factory bar, and go up through the square and on to North King Street. I pass Delaney’s, which I have never entered, and wonder if anyone’s inside cowering in the dark, loathing the light, nursing pints of plain.

My housemate and I disagree on Delaney’s. We both pass it most mornings on our respective ways to work, and see the stragglers of the night before huddling in the doorway, flicking lighters with numb and uncoordinated fingers, battling against the wind, as they cling in vain to the hope that it might still be yesterday. We see them emerging into the morning light looking dazzled, having forgotten the impermanence of night-time. Whereas he admits to being tempted on hungover Mondays to write off the whole day, and pop in for breakfast beer and liquid lunch; for me, Delaney’s is one of the things which; as I step towards work reluctantly, head down, hands in pockets; makes me appreciative that I have a shit job to go to. Delaney’s at half eight on a Monday morning reminds me to be grateful.

I turn past the recently completed, but discouragingly unoccupied, office buildings, towards Brunswick Street, where the Italian Restaurant’s neon sign accosts everyone who turns that corner – no matter how many times you have seen it, it always takes you by surprise – though on this evening, it is not yet lit-up. Inside it is homely and calming, with simple but appetizing courses, but the huge, glowing letters flashing red, blue, pink outside, are more evocative of a Shibuya massage parlour or hostess bar than an Italian eatery.

Nearing home I cross the road to stay in the sunshine, still humming my little ditty, half in my head, half out loud depending on my proximity to other people. I’m too self-conscious to walk the streets on my own singing openly. I guess I worry what other people, complete strangers though they may be, think about me. Perhaps I shouldn’t. But, I do, and I don’t foresee myself changing in this regard at any time soon. At the moment someone passes me, I have lowered my singing to almost complete silence – although the song itself never stops – and the further away I get the louder I sing, When off on my own in fields, beaches or mountains, unsurrounded by friend or foe, I can really let it all out, and sing as loud as my poor blackened lungs will allow. Up ahead, between Centra and The Elbowroom centre, where the health-conscious better themselves with yoga, pilates, martial arts and other wholesome lifestyle choices, I see a man and a woman coming towards me, cans in hand. I begin to sing a little more quietly. Then, I see the woman pass her cider to the guy, look around guiltily, and move as if to sit down on the ground. And it is then that I see the trickle.

Perhaps deciding it too far, she has shunned the nooks and gateways round the corner on Grangegorman Road, and has opted for the comfort of the open footpath as her best bet for bladder relief. Next to her, her drinking partner does his best to preserve her dignity by standing in front of her, but; not wanting to have wee on his runners, is standing about half a metre to her right; rendering his efforts completely futile. His attempt at keeping sketch is equally ineffective. He glances left and right, like a meercat in peril, stooping his neck out of pointless instinct, but though he does this unaffectedly – he has evidently kept sketch before – he is not quite as good at it as he ought be. Again, he casts his eyes up and down the street to see if any people are coming, and this is where he really falls down in his task: there clearly are. There are people coming in both directions, carrying shopping bags and briefcases, headphones in ears, days behind them, traipsing homeward. He is on alert, but for what? He is like a kid, who when asked to keep an eye on the cake in the oven, does so, in childlike literality, by standing there by the cooker, and watching the cake rise, harden, brown, blacken, crack, dry up, and eventually catch fire, and when his mother returns to find the kitchen ablaze and starts to chastise him with “I told you to keep an eye on the cake!” will reply in genuine innocence, “I did. I watched the whole thing.”

This seems to be turning into a Thursday tradition. Last week, again as I wandered home, I had come across a similar spectacle. I had turned off North King Street to nip through Red Cow Lane to Brunswick Street, when I spotted some booze-hounds hanging out outside the apartments there. I continue undaunted, but then I saw one of them scurry across to the opposite side of the street; I glimpsed a flash of fleshy arse, knees crouching between cars, I couldn’t take it, I turned back to take the long-cut home. With my poor vision, I hadn’t caught whether it was a man or a woman squatting there, decorating the cobbles. If it had been a woman, it wouldn’t have been so bad somehow, but had it been a guy, well… let’s just hope it wasn’t. I had toyed briefly with the idea of returning later to see which it had been, but I quickly decide against it. This was knowledge I could live without.

A few weeks before that, late at night, on the opposite side of the street from where this lady now leaks, my friend and I had found a woman surrounded by bags passed out face-down on the street outside the entrance to the apartments there. Eventually, after a little coaxing, we managed to wake her; she was bleeding from her forehead, and was incoherent. She tried to assure us she was fine, and that we should just leave her there, but we were unconvinced. We were soon joined in our concern by a girl entering the building, which we were glad about, as anyone who had happened upon the scene and seen two adult males standing over a bleeding corpse-like woman, may not have interpreted it as we would have wished them to. We got her sitting up, and she became slightly more communicative. The Gardai arrived not long after, and while my friend was explaining how we had come across her to them, she threw up a vile lumpen pink on her lovely black suede boots. I recoiled at the stench, and nearly retched myself. The Gardai took over and we didn’t hang around.

And yet I love these streets. Through Duck Lane with its whiskey drums and Americans; an alley evocative of a quaint mountainside hamlet, and at the same time some kind of mugger’s paradise. Past the chimney viewing tower and out into Smithfield square; stinking of horseshit every first Sunday, and blaring ice-techno every December. Up Manor Street, past the Charity Shop; the only shop in the city which lets customers price things themselves. Next to that is Dean’s Bargain Basement, specialist in spatulas, Godzilla videos, and illuminated portraits of The Virgin Mary. Further up on the same side is Drink with its affable chat – I’m often tempted to crack open one of the cans I have just bought there, and treat the counter as a bar, and natter on about RTE 2 sports panellists, new album releases, and whatever shit-shat comes to mind.

So now, as I draw near to this pair of Brunswick Street libertines making the most of the broad daylight, I am caught by the smell of wee. I see the stream creeping its way down the path. I pass them, stepping over the rivulets of urine flowing down from her, running over the kerb in tiny waterfalls collecting in a yellow puddle by the roadside. I turn to look back, out of some weird morbid compulsion, and see her stand upright, and reach for the band of her tracksuit bottoms to pull them back up, but it was only then; when she brought her hands down towards her knees to grip the elastic that she realised, or remembered, that she had never pulled them down to begin with.